Review: TV On the Radio—Return to Cookie Mountain

You’ve probably never heard anything quite like TV On the Radio. The foundation of their sound is a dark, dense mixture of fuzzy goth/industrial guitars, propulsive rhythms, and a number of synth and electronic effects, all synergizing with Tunde Adebimpe’s singular voice to make one of the most unique, interesting listens in recent memory.

That fans of indie/alt rock will find this album interesting I have no doubt. But is it enjoyable? Depends on what you’re looking for. For me, interesting and enjoyable walk pretty much hand-in-hand. But I also generally put a premium on dynamic, shapely songs that capture my attention. Here, tunefulness and dynamics take a back seat to groove and atmosphere. The often shout-sung, rhythmic vocals are devoted more to contributing to the groove than to delivering hooks or memorable melodies. In some ways, TV on the Radio remind me of a few contemporary bands like Broken Social Scene, Animal Collective, and, to some extent, Kid A-era Radiohead, who take a similar songs-be-damned approach, focusing instead on crafting dense sonic textures and grooves. It’s more about building a musical place to spend some time in and soak up the sound than about making songs to be listened to. If the musical place is good place to spend time this kind of music can be really enjoyable despite the lack of songiness. Radiohead pulls this off brilliantly. Musicwise, TV on the Radio are not quite up to that standard, but they’re very good.

Lyricswise, Return to Cookie Mountain is a treasure. The opening track, “I Was a Lover,” is a powerful lament about what we lose personally as a result of conflict. As far as I can tell, no specific mention of current events is made, but the unsettling start/stop rhythms, menacing sounds, and evocative, almost desparate, singing add to words like these to make the most potent anti-war statement I’ve heard from the current generation of rockers:

I was a lover, before this war
Held up in a luxury suite, behind a well-barricaded door
Now that I’ve cleaned up, gone legit
I can see clearly: round hole
Round hole, square peg don’t fit

On “Blues From Down Here,” channeling Peter Murphy, Adebimpe sings to a (perhaps dead) mother figure,

With my wet hair, I wipe the blood off of your feet
Carry me through these shark infested waters
Well you spared me from slaughter for sure,
But these sharks are equally in need of a martyr

The album is full of these kinds of richly drawn images and ideas that give you something to try and wrap your mind around while you’re soaking up the sound.

This album is not my favorite of this year, but for its originality, sonic complexity, intensity, and words, it gets my highest recommendation.

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4 thoughts on “Review: TV On the Radio—Return to Cookie Mountain

  1. Great review, Tom. I’ve never heard these guys. They are interesting. (Can you confirm that “I Was a Lover” is supposed to sound like that,and it’s not something wrong with the file?)

    I figured they were another typical (boring) indie band, but they’re not.

    That’s some great biblical imagery in “Blues From Down Here.”

    As for potent anti-war statements from the current gen of indie rockers, I’d vote for Ted Leo.

  2. I re-sent you the file. That’s not what it’s supposed to sound like. Although, it’s almost a cool remix . . .

  3. The only overt protest music I’ve heard lately has just been annoying. I’m thinking of Bright Eyes, Green Day, and Neil Young primarily. I’m sure there’s other good stuff out there. I haven’t heard any Ted Leo. He’s one of those I always mean to check out but haven’t gotten around to it.

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